Nestor Carbonell is a busy man these days. He’s starring in a pair of hit TV series: playing Raymond Navaro on NBC’s State of Affairs and Sheriff Alex Romero on AMC’s Bates Motel. Though discerning nerds remember him from Fox’s 2001 live-action adaptation of The Tick, he broke big by playing Richard Albert on Lost and roles in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, among man others, followed. Now he’s checked in to the Psycho prequel, Bates Motel, which is now in its third season of exploring the origins of Norman Bates. The New York City-born actor talks about the legacy of Psycho and reveals why he’s much better at teaching English to Koreans than waiting tables in this exclusive interview.
You wore an “I Was On Lost” t-shirt for your Bates Motel audition. How did that show prepare you for this gig?
It was such a fast-moving, incredible train to get to hop on in the beginning of the third season, and it was really interesting being a part of that world and connecting with the fans, who were incredibly loyal and devoted and really immersed in that world. Lost prepared me to play the role of a sheriff because it’s another character that’s shrouded in mystery. I didn’t know the history of my character on Lost until the final season. In the seventh episode of Season 3 of Bates Motel, we reveal some things about my character’s past that informs why he is as stern or stoic as he appears.
Why do you think Psycho has stood the test of time?
Psycho was groundbreaking at the time. In watching the movie Hitchcock, it was fascinating to see how hard it was for him to get that made and the resistance he got from the studio [who felt] that the public wasn’t prepared for that horror genre. What I love about the show is that it really attempts to investigate why Norman Bates became who he became. It’s the age-old question: Was he born a psycho, or was he bred one, or was it a combination of both? In finding out about his tortured upbringing we get a glimpse of how a psycho evolves. It’s less about the gore and more about the psychological elements that go into becoming this monster.
Who’s scarier to you, Norman Bates or the sorority girl that blew you up in State of Affairs?
I got to go with the sorority girl. You don’t see that one coming. That’s pretty frightening, but as I get to know Norman more and more it’s toss-up. They’re both equally frightening. I think the girl beats him out.
What was your first exposure to Playboy magazine?
I was far too young, nine or 10 years old. I was in Venezuela, where it was probably more accepted versus the United States. It was somebody who sneaked it from his dad’s stash. I had never heard of these things. It was new to me and I was shocked, for sure.
What movie scared you the most as a kid?
Jaws. Oddly enough, it was while we were living in Venezuela and I didn’t want to go in even the swimming pool after I saw that as a kid.
Heaven forbid you end up on death row, what would your last meal be?
I’d probably go with some kind of comfort food. So maybe a picadillo, a delicious Cuban dish that has beef, raisins and you typically eat it with rice and beans.
What’s your pop culture blind spot?
I’m really bad with music. I’m awful at keeping up with music. So whenever I’m asked question about what I’m listening too now, it’s pretty embarrassing. I end up listening to what my kids listen to or whatever my wife’s got on. I have gotten into the blues, but music is definitely a blind spot for me.
What was your first car?
My first car was a burgundy ‘85 Honda Accord LX hatchback that I got here in LA secondhand and drove it into the ground. I have fond memories of that car. Before that I was getting around by borrowing a moped from a buddy of mine, but that didn’t get me very far. That car got me to five auditions, which landed me my first job as a series regular on a WB show called Muscle. It was only 13 episodes, but it was part of the first lineup they ever did. And it opened up a lot of opportunities in the TV world for me, so I had to stop teaching English to Koreans.
Okay, that requires some explanation.
Well, I was a waiter in LA but I may have been the worst waiter because I didn’t last long. I was fired after three months. I was really good at one table, but give me two or three [at a time] and it was a disaster. Then in an acting class I asked a kid what he was doing on the side and he said he was teaching English to Koreans in Korea Town. I asked if you need to know Korean and he said, “No, in fact they actually don’t want you to know any, so it forces the students to really speak in English.” So it was like Good Morning, Korea Town. I had a blast. It was really fulfilling. And I’d do that for four hours at night and I’d come up with my own curriculum and bring my own books and have them read. I grew really attached to the students and it was hard to leave after nine months, but I got that gig on Muscle.
What’s the first song you knew the words to?
It would have been something challenging like “Rapper’s Delight,” which would have been while we were living in London.
What’s been your favorite mistake?
I make them every day. I tell my kids to keep making them but just try not to repeat the same one. I’d have to say thinking I could coach my kids in soccer. I did that for a couple of years and my boys suffered through. Eventually, one of them went to club soccer and got a proper coach, but I learned a lot about what can get through to your own child and what can’t. That was an exercise in futility on my part.